Friday, May 27, 2011

Trying To Have it Both Ways: Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs)

Guillaume Canet’s 2006 French thriller Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne), which was released in North America in 2008, was, hands down, the best suspense film I’d seen in years. Based on American Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name, it was a superb movie with an absolutely enticing story of a doctor (Francois Cluzet) who one day receives an e-mail from his wife, whom he thought had died eight years earlier. That’s only the beginning of a pulse pounding and highly complex tale that saw said doctor running for his life, suspected of murder and convinced that his beloved was still alive. Utterly logical – most thrillers falter in that regard – and perfectly plotted, it announced Canet, an actor who had only directed one feature before, Mon idole (My Idol, 2002), as a genuine talent to watch.

Understandably, I awaited Canet’s follow-up film with bated breath. After receiving its world premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies) has finally opened commercially. Alas, it’s a mostly disappointing and weak effort, albeit not without some virtues of its own. Little White Lies, which Canet wrote and directed, is being compared to The Big Chill. That's likely because its soundtrack, laid on with ‘60s American rock hits from the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight and The Isley Brothers, and its premise, as a group of friends deal with an accident that has befallen one of their circle, is similar to that American movie. But truth be told, it never truly reminded me of that film. Little White Lies feels like a typical contemporary French drama that,  towards its conclusion, echoes the banalities and dishonesty of so much Hollywood fare.

Little White Lies does open strongly. In a long, impressive tracking shot, we follow Ludo (Juan Dujardin, who just won the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival for his latest movie, The Artist), who’s been partying heavily at a disco, as he mounts his scooter and tears off through the near-deserted dawn streets of Paris. Suddenly, he’s hit by a truck and ends up in the hospital, hovering between life and death. It’s a dramatic overture, but not one to draw the viewer in since we learn virtually nothing about Ludo, who remains solely a motionless and bandaged figure on a hospital bed (except for some brief visibility later in the movie, cavorting in a couple of videos previously shot by his friends). Instead, Canet segues to Ludo's buddies, who immediately race to his bedside. Then, just as quickly, they decide to stick to their previous plans of taking their annual summer holiday in a cabin rented by high-strung restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet). As often happens in films of this sort, their demons, hang-ups and anxieties bring their unresolved issues and prejudices to a dramatic head.

The best parts of Little White Lies are in the movie’s early sequences as Canet convincingly lays out the believable annual routine of the group, who usually while away the lazy days of their summer holiday by boating, drinking and generally relaxing. Well, except for Max who becomes preoccupied with getting the weasels who have burrowed into his cottage’s woodwork. There’s one hysterical scene where he pretty much destroys a room in a vain attempt to kill the varmint(s). An equally funny and telling moment has the men wanting desperately to make fun of the lover of their friend Marie (Ma vie en rose's Marion Cotillard, Canet’s off screen partner), a tweedy Devendra Banhart sort, only to stop their snickering in the face of the man’s obvious musical talent. Scenes like these remind one of Canet’s demonstrable abilities for evoking genuine moments of casual life.

Marion Cotillard in Little White Lies
Canet also seems to be on to something revelatory, initially crafting a rare and honest cinematic portrait of friends who don’t actually know each other that well and, in fact, don’t even like each other very much. All this despite involvement in each other’s lives, as godparents, lovers and, supposedly, compatriots. But he also wants us to like these people, who are generally self-absorbed to a fault. In effect, he's is trying to have it both ways, offering up a brutally frank and unflattering portrait of a group of friends and then trying – and failing – to redeem them so we’ll leave the movie feeling good about them and their plight. (Only the platonic friendship between ethnologist Marie, a sexually confused, promiscuous woman who ends relationships as soon as they become serious and womanizing actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche), who also lusts after her, offers some genuineness sweetness in a film that is more often than not emotionally cold.) That’s the worst sort of pandering any filmmaker can do, but also unexpected coming from a cinema culture which rarely cheats by offering up phony ‘happy’, saccharine endings. 

I can’t help wondering if the extraordinary success of Tell No One (the ninth highest grossing French picture the year it came out at home and a big foreign language hit in North America two years later) pushed Canet to try even harder to hit another artistic home run this time out, particularly by appealing to American’s cinematic prejudices. (It's already a huge success in France.) It’s never a good idea to aim for your audience’s (perceived) tastes to the exclusion of making the best movie you can. Kudos to Canet for not repeating himself, but at the end of the day, while recognizing the ambitions of this two and a half hour plus film, Little White Lies has to be chalked up as a failure. But it’s one that only a true talent could make.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

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